Canada

'Do-or-die' time

Reform fights a rearguard action in its own backyard

DALE EISLER May 12 1997
Canada

'Do-or-die' time

Reform fights a rearguard action in its own backyard

DALE EISLER May 12 1997

'Do-or-die' time

BUREAU REPORT: The Prairies

Reform fights a rearguard action in its own backyard

DALE EISLER

In the cradle of Canadian populism, where Prairie anger against Ottawa can flow as menacingly as a Manitoba flood, it was a remarkable scene. The federal election campaign had only just begun and there was Bev Longstaff, former city councillor and now Liberal candidate in Calgary Centre, being greeted with respect-and

sometimes warmth—as she trudged door-to-door in the trendy Kensington area. One householder who spoke with Longstaff even admitted that he may switch his vote from Reform, which now holds the riding, to the Liberals. “I like a lot of what Preston Manning says,” explained teacher Stan Phelps, 47. “But I know Bev is a good person and the Liberals have done a decent job.” The story was the same a few doors down, where a middle-aged woman who also voted Reform in 1993 confessed she will “think seriously” about Longstaff. What she would not do, however, was reveal her name. "Heavens no," she said. "I don't want people to know I could actually vote Liberal." That reluctance is understandable. A few short years ago, Liberal candidates in Alberta were often greeted like the carriers of an airborne disease. Nowhere was that sentiment stronger than

in Calgary, a city that has not elected a Liberal since 1968. But as this election unfolds, there are signs that old grudges are dying—and that the Reform party’s stranglehold on Alberta may be weakening as it confronts not only the Liberals but also a resurgent Conservative party. “It’s do-or-die for Reform,” says University of Calgary political scientist David Taras. The stakes, although different, are also high in the other two Prairie provinces, with battle lines that vary from riding to riding or, in the case of Manitoba, from dike to dike.

In Saskatchewan, the birthplace of Canadian social democracy, the New Democrats hope to improve on the five of 14 seats they currently hold—at the expense of the Liberals and Reform. And in Manitoba, where the governing party holds 12 of 14 seats, the NDP, Reform and Tories are all gunning for gains.

But Alberta remains the most closely watched battlefield. As Reform struggles in the rest of Canada to break free from its regional straitjacket, it faces the prospect of fighting a rearguard action to retain the 22 of 26 Alberta seats it won in 1993. Just how serious the Liberal challenge will be is far from clear. While the Grits are polling higher than Reform overall, their support seems concentrated in a few urban areas such as Edmonton and Calgary. But the Liberals have hijacked many of the fiscally conservative policies originally advanced by Reform. In particular, Finance Minister Paul Martin’s attack on the deficit, together with a booming provincial oil sector, has tended to neutralize the powerful Alberta business community as a critic of Ottawa.

The biggest headache for Reform could be the signs of life stirring in Tory ranks. “The Tories have made something of a comeback and it looks like more of a three-way race than we’ve ever had before in this province,” says pollster Bruce Cameron of the Angus Reid Group in Calgary. An Angus Reid poll released the day before the April 27 election call showed the Liberals with 36 per cent of the decided vote in Alberta, compared with 29 per cent for Reform and a surprising 27 for the Tories. And if energy counts, the Tories will definitely be a factor.

Bright and early on the first full day of the campaign, Conservative candidates were waiting at Calgary bus stops and train platforms to shake the hands of early morning commuters. “We’re going to surprise a lot of people,” vows Doug Ford, the Conservatives’ Alberta campaign manager. Banished to the political wilderness in 1993 in a backlash against former prime minister Brian Mulroney, the party is hoping to win back the longtime Conservative voters it lost to Reform the last time around. “Watch Calgary,” predicts Tory national campaign chairman Dave Tkachuk. ‘We’re going to win some of the traditional seats that we held for years.”

The same cannot be said about rural Alberta, where issues such as gun control and getting tough on crime work heavily in Reform’s favor. And Reform strategists play down the threat, maintaining that Liberal support will recede as surely as snow in a Prairie spring— and that the Tories will become irrelevant once voters begin to think seriously about the issues. Cliff Fryers, Reform’s national campaign chairman, predicts that the party will expand on its existing base and could well sweep the province. “I don’t care what the polls say,” Fryers says. “After turning to Reform in a big way, Albertans are not going to turn away—they’re not that fickle.”

Manning has been using the same argument for months: once people focus on issues such as jobs, taxes and crime, they will embrace

RIDINGS TO WATCH

Calgary Southeast: This showdown between Reform's Jason Kenney and the Tories' Carol Kraychy should indicate whether the Conservatives can mount a comeback in Alberta. Tory insiders claim their polls show them ahead, while Reformers say Kenney will coast to victory.

Edmonton West: In 1993, Liberal Anne McLellan initially had the slimmest possible margin of victory—one vote out of the more than 35,000 cast, which increased to 12 after a recount. As the natural resources minister, she should enjoy name recognition, but Reform candidate Dean Kurpjuweit may benefit from the fact that redistribution has added territory from a Reform-held riding.

Prince Albert: In Saskatchewan, where the battle is largely between New Democrats and Liberals, this shapes up to be a major battle. Liberal incumbent and former mayor Gordon Kirkby has been targeted by the NDP and faces Ray Funk, who held the riding before 1993.

Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar: Redistribution has resulted in a head-to-head battle of MPs in this Saskatchewan riding. Elwin Hermanson is among the most respected members of the Reform caucus, but he is in a tough race against veteran New Democrat Chris Axworthy.

Portage-Lisgar: Jake Floeppner, Reform’s only incumbent in Manitoba, is facing off against the Tories’ Brian Pa I lister, a former cabinet minister in Gary Filmon’s provincial government. The betting is on the Tories in what looks to be a twoparty race.

Brandon-Souris: The Tories are pinning their hopes on Brandon Mayor Rick Borotsik, who many believe has the inside track against Liberal incumbent Glen McKinnon and Reform’s Ed Agnew.

Reform’s “Fresh start” platform. Even Liberals were admitting privately that the impact of Reform’s policy statement—more than 500,000 copies were delivered to Alberta households last week— should not be underestimated. In fact, one Liberal pollster in Ottawa told Maclean’s last week that Reform has the “most clever” platform of all the parties. “It is a ruthlessly political document,” the pollster said. “But there’s no doubt that is where people’s heads are at.”

So far, though, the Western campaign appears to lack the emotion so often at the core of Prairie election battles. Traditionally, alienation and anger with federal policies have driven the political process, producing populist movements that have included Social Credit

and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. But without the same anger directed at the Chrétien government, election politics on the Prairies has lost some of its regional flavor. Albertans, for example, are concerned about the same issues as most other Canadians, says University of Alberta political scientist Allan Tupper—jobs, personal security, taxes. “In many ways, there’s a lot that is less distinctive about the agenda in the province,” Tupper says. "It will be very much part of the national campaign.”

In Saskatchewan, the primary battle is between the New Democrats and the Liberals, who each held five seats going into the campaign, with Reform looking hardpressed to hold its four seats. (The Tories, tainted by the lingering stench of Grant Devine’s scandal-plagued provincial government, are almost invisible.) With Roy Romanow’s NDP still popular, the federal party hopes to ride the premier’s coattails and add at least two more seats.

In the NDP’s sights are Liberal incumbents Gordon Kirkby of Prince Albert and Georgette Sheridan in Saskatoon/Humboldt. In all, NDP strategists have targeted seven ridings in Saskatchewan as “likely” wins, but they believe the party could collect as many as nine. “Our analysis is that we’re up, Reform is down and the Liberals are about the same,” says Saskatchewan NDP campaign chairman Rod Dickinson. As a result, Saskatchewan will be a major focus for NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, whose first campaign stop last week was Regina. The Angus Reid Group’s Cameron agrees there is room for the New Democrats to make gains in Saskatchewan—and Manitoba. ‘The move to the right by the Liberals seems to have opened the door for the NDP to pick up seats in both provinces,” he says.

But in flood-soaked Manitoba, the campaign is the last thing on people’s minds. Except, that is, when they think about the timing of the election call. Last week, with the province under a state of emergency, Winnipeg facing a major evacuation and huge tracts of southern Manitoba already underwater, callers to open-line radio shows in Winnipeg unanimously condemned the Prime Minister’s decision. “Can you imagine the election being called if Toronto was facing this situation,” snarled one caller. “I doubt it.” On the Prairies, where anger with Ottawa has yet to emerge with its usual strength, this is one flood that might yet spawn a populist political tide. □